Top Dogs pump out six combat-ready F-35 pilots


Class 17-ABL from the 61st Fighter Squadron makes history on Aug. 5, graduating as the first F-35A Lightning II initial qualification course in the Air Force. It has taken eight months of tremendous teamwork from across the 56th Fighter Wing and Team Luke to produce these six F-35 fighter pilots for the combat air force.

The preparation for their training at Luke began in 2015 with the 56th Training Squadron syllabus development team. Their task was to create a training program to build a near mission-ready fifth generation wingman that is capable across the full spectrum of F-35 mission sets. Gathering expertise from around the Air Force and pulling lessons learned from teaching F-15/16/22 and A-10 pilots, the team created a robust and challenging course of training.

The syllabus uses a building block approach that fuses self-study, classroom academics, a desktop pilot training aid and the full mission simulator to prepare student pilots for their first sortie in the single-seat F-35.

Mainly, the Lockheed Martin contract instructor pilots taught the academic phase of training at the Academic Training Center, which consists of more than 156 events totaling 308 hours. Among the topics pilots learn are basic aircraft systems, emergency procedures, local area procedures, mission systems, weapons and tactical employment.

Over the course of training, each pilot is required to pass 10 academic tests validating they have the requisite knowledge to safely and effectively employ the jet. While the F-35 is an easy fighter to fly, learning to process the vast amount of information the aircraft provides to the pilot is the challenge to employing it as a weapons system. To aid students in learning how to manipulate the sensors and 8×20-inch panoramic cockpit display, each pilot is provided with a stick, throttle, and touchscreen laptop to practice using the 20-plus buttons to see how they interact with the jet’s sensors and displays.

Prior to the first flight in the Lightning II, each student completes 16 simulator events. The F-35 simulator provides a highly realistic and immersive experience that prepares each pilot for that first sortie. With no two-seat models, the training program relies heavily on the simulator to ensure that each student is ready for the unexpected emergency. Passing the emergency procedures evaluation is the first big hurdle and paves the way to flight.

As the training progresses, up to four simulators are linked together to enable formations to practice advanced tactics against simulated air and surface threats. Advanced debriefing capability permits instructors and students to review their performance and cement lessons learned. Over the course of the program, the students complete 46 simulator events totaling more than 76 hours.

Taking to the air in the Lightning II would not be possible without the efforts of the 56th Maintenance Group and its 61st Aircraft Maintenance Unit. These tactical aircraft maintainers and back shops ensure each aircraft is mission-ready, fueled and armed for the sortie. The 56th Operations Support Squadron provided a safe and ready airfield. Additionally, OSS Airmen in the tower and radar approach control provided the air traffic control necessary to get to and from the training airspace. Ensuring each pilot’s flight equipment, including the advanced helmet, was ready to fly was a job easily handled by the professionals in aircrew flight equipment. Verifying that each student was ready for flight in the F-35 fell to the aviation resource managers in the Top Dogs.

Each student flew at least 48 sorties totaling 77 hours, starting with the basics of taking off and landing, continuing across the full spectrum mission sets, and culminating in the Capstone phase of high-end employment. Along the way, students dropped inert and live laser-guided GBU-12s, refueled from a KC-135 day and night, and flew low-altitude step-down training.

Students also participated in Operation Sonoran Fall. This three-week phase of training exposed the students to conditions similar to combat with realistic scenarios provided by intelligence, tactical control from the 607th Air Control Squadron and dissimilar adversaries from the 309th FS. The students and instructors learned how to integrate effects and work together as a team to accomplish the mission.

Congratulations 17-ABL! I salute you for your hard work and commitment to excellence. You have earned the title “F-35 fighter pilot,” and you make us proud! You represent the hard work of the 56th Fighter Wing and Team Luke. Continue to learn and sharpen your sword, for there will likely be a day, sooner rather than later, when you will be tested. As you move on to your operational assignments remember that you wear our brand. Stay humble, fly, fight and win! Bring it on!